While there is a long history in country music of dealing with social issues, domestic violence was a topic that was taboo for a very long time. Indeed, when major artists started tackling the issue with pointed material, the songs remained album cuts. It wasn’t until Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” that the issue hit the radio airwaves, where it was deemed so controversial that the song peaked outside the top ten.
Of course, when Garth Brooks had sung about a cheating wife being mowed down with a semi by her jealous husband the previous year, there wasn’t even a hint of controversy, and “Papa Loved Mama” went top five. There still hasn’t been a top ten hit dealing with the issue, though Miranda Lambert is threatening to change that. Here’s a look back at some significant songs dealing with domestic violence.
“The Stairs”, Reba McEntire
from the 1987 album The Last One to Know
It’s been reported that McEntire was moved to record “The Stairs” because of her younger sister being in an abusive marriage. The song tells about a woman who makes up lies to hide the fact that her husband is beating her. After another violent incident, “she’ll have to pretend that she fell down the stairs again.” It’s one of those hidden gems in McEntire’s catalog that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
“Rosie Strike Back”, Rosanne Cash
from the 1988 album King’s Record Shop
Cash kicked off her last mainstream country album with a song that has her pleading with her friend Rosie to leave her abusive partner: “He throws punches, you bear with him. Don’t take it on you Rosie, don’t be his victim.” In the bridge, she promises that there are people out there who can help her if she lets them. King’s Record Shop was the first album by a female country artist to produce four #1 hits, and it’s fascinating to think about what could’ve happened if CBS had the courage to send this to radio.
“Independence Day”, Martina McBride
from the 1993 album The Way That I Am
In the fifteen years since its release, “Independence Day” has become something of an anthem, a classic country hit that is seen as empowering despite the fatalism of the storyline. While the oft-mentioned claim that the song changed what women in country music could sing about is not entirely accurate, as evidenced by the earlier recordings on the same topic, the impact that this record had is difficult to overstate. Even though radio didn’t fully embrace it, “Independence Day” won honors for both Song and Video of the Year at the CMA Awards.
“A Man’s Home is His Castle”, Faith Hill
from the 1995 album It Matters to Me
Faith Hill is rarely given credit for the challenging material that she regularly records. Unlike the explosive nature of “Independence Day”, her spousal abuse song from 1995 quietly simmers, painting the picture of a woman who is nearing her personal tipping point. “I’m saving up my money, and when I get the nerve I’ll run. But Jim don’t give up easily, so I intend to buy a gun.” The title is reminiscent of the Eddy Arnold classic “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle”, but for the character Linda, her home “is a cage.”
“Goodbye Earl”, Dixie Chicks
from the 1999 album Fly
There’s little doubt that Earl got what was coming to him. After all, he willfully disregarded the restraining order and put Wanda in intensive care. Songwriter Dennis Linde touched on a painful reality regarding domestic violence, as restraining orders are often counterproductive, infuriating the abuser and spurring him to further actions.
But what made this song controversial wasn’t so much what was done to Earl, but the gleeful lack of remorse on the part of Mary Ann and Wanda, who poisoned him with the black-eyed peas. Certainly Natalie Maines’ vocal performance was infused with biting vindictiveness, with her musical partners taunting schoolyard “na na na’s” in the background. Even though it was the first Chicks single to miss the top ten, it remains a signature hit.
“Gunpowder & Lead”, Miranda Lambert
from the 2007 album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The current single from the ACM Album of the Year has been steadily rising on the chart for twenty weeks, and has now climbed into the top twenty. The publicity from that big award victory might be enough to make this Lambert’s biggest hit to date, and there couldn’t be a more worthy single. The only song on this list sung from the first person perspective, Lambert doesn’t mince words as she prepares for the man who “slapped my face” and “shook me like a rag doll” to return home from jail, looking for round two. She’s waiting with pistol in hand to finish what he started.
This shows sometimes an artists’ biggest hit is not always the song that goes number one. I think it would be hard to find a Martina or Dixie Chick song that meant more to their career success than these.
Reba McEntire had a similar issue with “Fancy” which was deemed too controversial and not played on some radio stations. Yet today it is one of her signature hits.
I am surprised to see that Miranda is not getting the same backlash as the Dixie Chicks got. Maybe the Chicks cleared a path for her, or maybe Miranda reputation for taking on more hard edge songs has helped.
Whatever the case, I am glad Miranda looks to on the verge of a top ten hit.
if only there was such a handy solution to that issue as the “six pack” was for carrying beer.
I think in many ways “Goodbye Earl” was the perfect revenge song, and it’s tough that people took exception to its women protagonists not showing any remorse for what they did–after all, very few men show any remorse for beating up their women, why isn’t turnabout fair play?
Also, isn’t it ironic that this song should have been written by a man? Dennis Linde, folks–the same man who wrote “Burning Love”, the last Top 10 hit that Elvis Presley ever had, back in 1972.
For a fine song that combines humor and domestic violence in a way that works, I highly recommend “Thelma and Louise” from Trish Murphy’s excellent “Girls Get in Free” CD. This song garnered some well deserved airplay on Americana radio stations when it first came out a few years back. Fortunately someone posted a live performance video of Trish doing this song on YouTube, for which I am very grateful!
I agree that Faith Hill does not get enough credit for her more serious material. Her song gave me chills and is sung like a woman on the verge of hope, after breaking down. I wonder why Faith’s strongest songs are so ignored. Kudos to her for continuing to record songs about forgotten women, even if the radio ignores them.